I’m not sure if you heard, but last night Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama bought a half hour of national air time to broadcast a bold “closing argument for the Everyman,” as the New York Times phrased it. In the days leading up to the event many derided the stunt as the Obama Infomercial. Clearly, they hadn’t been watching the same campaign over which the rest of the country swooned for nearly 700 days.
The Obama campaign for President will go down in American history as, to date, one of the most incredibly crafted and executed sojourns to the White House. It is the first national political campaign to take place fully in the age of Web 2.0, building on the past successes of Howard Dean and forging a new blueprint for Baracking the Vote in an age of Facebook blasts and You Tube gaffes. A half hour ad for Barack Obama during the fall prime time season on most of the major networks? That’s not an infomercial; that’s an event.
I’ll let other sites tackle whether the spot was effective, whether it was compelling, whether it was fresh. My vote isn’t up for negotiation 5 days before the election. But policy and substance have never been the most alluring tenets of Obama for President. It’s been style, flash, grandiosity and spectacle. His campaign’s premise seems to be: You can be President if you often appear Presidential. Much of that comes from character, eloquence, carriage and gait, understood. But even more comes from lights, camera, sound and action.
It should be no surprise then that Obama’s spot last night was less infomercial than short film. Unlike the biographical film that introduced the Senator at the Democratic National Convention, the Half Hour Obama Spot does not have an IMDB page. It does not have the advantage of Hollywood gravitas in the narration of David Straithern. It did, however, benefit from the contributing effort of director Davis Guggenheim, Oscar winner for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and director of Obama’s bio short, “A Mother’s Promise.”
Whereas “A Mother’s Promise,” was ten minutes in length with a structure borrowed straight from VH1’s Behind the Music, last night’s presentation was more restrained. “A Mother’s Promise” relied on conventional biographical story-telling, building momentum around promise before introducing hardship 3/4 of the way through and concluding with a message of hope and resolve in the face of adversity. Wednesday night’s production was necessarily more cinematic.
The film opened with archetypes of Americana, amber waves of grain, big, empty skies; the kind of imagery not out of place in a Michael Bay movie like Pearl Harbor or Armageddon. After all, what is Americana other than a commercially fabricated commodity of nostalgia? Understanding the power of these symbols, Guggenheim and co. orchestrate a hypnotizing score to buoy the introduction. What follows are four acts, each highlighting a different aspect of the American experience. First there is the football mom at the gas pump who must ration food for her children, a segment if put to shimmery guitar and a soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky would appear straight out of Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights. Obama’s thesis for part 1 is tax relief for America’s middle class, one of his campaign’s more prominent initiatives.
Then there is the black couple struggling with the price of prescription drugs; briefly, the older white man whose retirement pension was squandered by the company he worked for most of his life; the latino widow who finds it harder to make ends meet. After each personal vignette, narrated by the Senator, Obama offered his policy initiatives that would address the needs and concerns of the people in his film.
Finally there was a momentary reflection on Obama’s past, covered exhaustively in “A Mother’s Promise,” a dramatic account of the life and times of Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden, and Obama’s plans for the future of American military involvement.
Critics will lambaste Obama’s Half Hour Ad as an infomercial paid for with millions of dollars, an extravagance unfit for a true public servant. Others will claim it was a grandiose gesture akin to the rich kid who runs for class President by asking his dad to buy 200 pizzas for the entire school. Still others will simply shrug their shoulders and say, “that shit was boring.” In true Obaman fashion, everyone can come to agreement and take pride that they are each right.
It’s fitting in these last few days of the election that Obama has once again both thwarted and transcended expectations. The Half Hour Ad was less pompous than I expected; it was much drier than I expected. It was, in short, everything to everyone, precisely what it needed to be. Obama clearly laid out specific policies to silence critics who dismiss him as an empty suit with soaring rhetoric. Yet he couched them in dramatic narratives that are the paragon of short-form storytelling. It was emotional without being cloying; it was persuasive without being preachy; it was dire without being macabre; and it was hopeful beyond measure.
Whether or not it was effective is an answer we will never truly be able to gauge, for the true beauty of last night’s production wasn’t its advocacy of a party or platform, but its greater meaning for campaign discourse. It was Obama’s closing argument to the American people, and a most incredible conclusion to an awe-inspiring campaign. In thirty minutes on a Wednesday night, Barack Obama effectively dropped the mic on the stage like an MC who just finished his set on a high note. Never before has a road to the White House from Kenya to Kansas to Hawaii to DC so effectively married media and its emotional pull on our hearts and minds. A black Democratic candidate for President who vows to cut taxes preempted the World Series to broadcast a 27 minute film about his plans for America? Yup. If last night’s event was an infomercial, the only thing it sold was the idea that under Obama anything truly does seem possible.